Turkish Society Split on Genocide, The EU, and Many Other Issues

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Turkish Society Split on Genocide, The EU, and Many Other Issues

By Harut Sassounian

Publisher, The California Courier

For 90 years, Turkish officials have denied the reality of the Armenian Genocide. During the past weekend, for the first time in Turkish history, a conference was held in Istanbul during which Turkish scholars challenged the revisionist position of their own government on the Armenian Genocide. This was not an easy accomplishment. It came about after the organizers struggled to overcome a series of almost insurmountable legal obstacles and physical attacks.

The conference was originally planned for last May. However, Justice Minister Cemil Cicek caused its cancellation at the last minute by accusing the participating Turkish scholars of being “traitors” and “stabbing Turkey in the back.”

Embarrassed by stinging criticism from many European officials, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan quietly urged the organizers to reschedule the conference for Sept. 23-25, just days before the planned start of talks for Turkey’s EU membership. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul even promised to deliver the opening remarks at this unprecedented gathering of Turkish scholars.

However, just hours before the start of the conference, an Istanbul court issued an order suspending the gathering. The judge gave the organizers 30 days to respond to a series of bizarre questions on the qualifications and selection of the scholars as well as the financing of their travel and lodging expenses.

This eleventh-hour postponement of the conference stunned not only the EU officials but also most of the Turkish public, including the overwhelming majority of newspapers and TV stations in Turkey. Both the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister saw the court order as an attempt to derail Turkey’s EU membership drive. The judge, petitioned by ultra-nationalists, clearly exceeded his jurisdiction by interfering in the internal affairs of an academic institution.

The conference, titled "Ottoman Armenians During the Decline of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy," was finally held during the past weekend after changing its venue to Bilgi University. The organizers either took or were allowed to take advantage of a loophole in the court order that had specifically banned two of the three co-sponsoring universities (Bogazici and Sabanci), but not the third - Bilgi University.

Ultra-nationalist groups and retired military officers had urged all “patriotic” Turks to converge on the conference site and disrupt the proceedings. They called the participating Turkish scholars traitors. Despite the presence of a strong police force to protect the university from attacks by extremists, the protesters managed to pelt the participants by eggs and rotten tomatoes. A few trouble-makers even managed to sneak into the hall and attempt to disrupt the discussions.

Once they passed the gauntlet, scores of scholars presented their papers over a two-day period. Most of them carefully avoided the use of the word genocide, due to their fear of being hauled into court and charged with “denigrating” the Turkish nation. Some of the participants were also weary of being accused of siding with Armenians on this emotionally-charged issue. The scholars made it clear, however, that Ottoman officials had organized the mass deportations and the subsequent killings of hundreds of thousands of Armenians.

Even though there were very few new revelations on the topic of the Armenian Genocide during the course of the conference, the significant aspect of the gathering was the fact that it took place at all. This is the first time that a group of Turkish scholars, facing the wrath of many of their radical compatriots and a legal ban, had dared to challenge the official revisionist position of the Turkish establishment on this issue.

Of course, the proximity of the date of the planned start of Turkey’s EU membership talks on Oct. 3 played a considerable role in winning the tacit and reluctant support of the Turkish government for this conference. Neither Erdogan nor Gul were probably motivated by their “deep seated beliefs” in academic freedom to support the holding of such a conference in Turkey.

Turkish society still has a long and uphill battle in deciding its future. There are powerful conflicting forces within Turkey tearing the country into two divergent directions: one looking to Europe and the other to an ultra-nationalist, Islamist, and pan-Turkist orientation.

Before the Turks worry about whether the Europeans would allow them to join the EU, they themselves would have to decide the direction of their own society. When millions of Turks are still fanatically clinging to their old authoritarian mentality, no matter which new laws their government adopts and which agreements their leaders sign, at the end of the day, these documents are meaningless pieces of paper. Prime Minister Erdogan’s saying that his country should be a part of Europe does not make it so. True reform must first take place in the hearts and minds of the people, before it can be adopted as a legal code. Such reforms cannot be imposed from outside. They have to come from within Turkish society.

How long would it take to reform Turkish society is a question to which no one knows the answer. When millions of Turks are still adamantly opposed to the most basic values shared by Europeans, it is clear that they are neither ready now nor would they be ready anytime soon to join the EU.

Turkey should neither be rejected right away nor accepted into the EU in the foreseeable future. Turkey should not be admitted now because it’s not and would not be ready to join the ranks of civilized European nations nor should it be rejected outright for fear of setting completely loose a monster that would be a clear and present danger to its immediate neighborhood!

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